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These issues, challenges and trends will define Arizona's 2024 elections

It is officially 2024, and that means the next presidential election year is upon us. And Arizona is set to be the center of the political universe as it plays out.

We are now a key swing state rife with independent voters and races that are increasingly tight. And then, of course, there’s the issue of elections themselves — if candidates will challenge them and if the electorate will trust them. 

For more on all of it, The Show sat down with longtime Arizona political reporter Yvonne Wingett Sanchez. She covers democracy in Arizona for the Washington Post and, she said this is a question that’s been on her mind a lot as 2023 wound down.

Full interview

YVONNE WINGETT SANCHEZ: As Thanksgiving passed, I was celebrating with my family and I kept thinking about how much I needed to enjoy this because we don't know what next year is going to look like. If 2022 and 2020 are any comparison, we are going to be at the center of the universe. Already, I'm hearing that Republican side, [and we can] we make a lot of presumptions about on the Democratic side, but both teams are building out their legal teams.

They had war rooms in 2020 that set up shop and were here for many, many, many weeks. I'm told it's going to be as long, if not longer, heading into this next cycle as it was in 2020. It is going to be drawn out. It's going to be contentious, and I think both sides are going to be more organized, and they are anticipating legal fights that they perhaps did not anticipate at the same level in 2020.

So you're, you're looking at this sort of the post-election already because we know almost no matter what the results are, they will be challenged.

SANCHEZ: It will be challenged every which way to Sunday. And not just the presidential election, the U.S. Senate, the congressional races, county supervisor races perhaps. I mean, all of these competitive races that came down in 2020 to just several hundred votes. Like we are starting to enter territory where everything matters. I think the race for attorney general in 2022, which was decided by 280 votes, very instructive for us.

This is what we are anticipating in some of these statewide races, margins that come down to that little or that narrow of a margin. And every single jurisdiction obviously matters, every single issue that we have been talking about since 2020, 2022. Everything from signature verification to provisional ballots to the curing process. All of like the weeds that a lot of people don't really like to talk about but election reporters, democracy, reporters, voting rights, voting issues, reporters really live in. That is what we are anticipating, talking about for probably many months.

This is your world. OK. So let's then talk about why these races are going to end up as tight as they probably will, right? And this has a lot to do with just sort of the, the electorate in our state right now. We have been a traditionally red state for a long time that has been slowly shifting. There's debate over how much, right? You've got a pretty large Republican voting bloc, within that pretty substantive Trump loyalist voting block. Democrats obviously on the other side as well. But it's really independents who rule the day in Arizona right now. They're once again now the largest voting bloc in our electorate. What does that voting bloc look like? And how does that kind of result in these races that will be decided by so few votes?

SANCHEZ: I've spent a lot of time talking with a lot of these independent voters. And one of the more interesting themes that has emerged at least recently to me is just how disgusted they are with both sides, with both major parties, how turned off they are. And these are people who are living their lives, they have kids, they want to feel safe, they want to feel like their government is looking out for them. They want to send their kids to good schools. They don't really want to think about government.

And unfortunately for them, in their own words, they are having, they're having to think about government all the time. They're watching these fights play out in Congress, expulsions, sometimes like physical altercations. They're turned off by it. And these are people who are just looking for a return to normalcy. And these voters, as you said, are really going to rule the day.

The other dynamic that I think we really need to think about is all the transplants who have moved to Arizona since 2020. We are one of the fastest-growing areas in the country. We add 100,000 or so residents to this area per year. That is a lot of new voters. And so part of this game is going to be reaching those people, reaching those people who don't necessarily have a hardened viewpoint of a particular candidate or a particular voter.

Maybe when they moved here from Wisconsin, they were Republican, but they show up here and it's like, whoa this is a completely different Republican party, vice versa with the Democrats. So a big part of the game is going to be trying to reach them.

That's fascinating. OK, so obviously like Arizona coming down to the center of the political landscape is about issues. What are the issues that you hear from independent voters that they really care about? I think, you know, you think Arizona and you think immigration, but is that usually the one that really comes up a lot?

SANCHEZ: It's actually the economy

It's the economy, stupid. Right, Bill Clinton.

SANCHEZ: It is the, they know what their grocery bills look like and it's not necessarily like, statistically, here's what the, you know, here's how the shape of the economy, it's how they feel about the economy. So that's the number one driver when you talk to women, especially along the Loop 101 where we have seen a lot of growth, and we have a lot of persuadable independent women and men. But these voters are also, surprisingly for some people, they care about rights, and their reproductive rights. They might be pro choice or not, but they want to be able to have that choice. They don't want anybody to be able to make that choice for them.

So abortion comes up.

SANCHEZ: Abortion comes up quite a bit. Education and having quality schools for kids without having to foot the bill for a private option. That's another big issue. Border security. You know, they see the images that are coming out of the border, they see the news in Israel and Gaza that does not make them feel safe, right? That, that directly connects to the border issue for them. And so I think that safety issue is is definitely a driver for them.

It's issues that hit home, right. When you talk about that, that particular corridor of voters. I remember the last time we were talking about elections a lot. It was all about independent women voters or even Republican women voters who are persuadable in the suburbs in particular. Is that going to once again be a big trend in Arizona?

SANCHEZ: I think that's a big trend. The other trend to watch surprisingly are men and persuadable men. These are especially men who may have voted for Democrats in the last cycle are turned off by the economy, are turned off by perhaps the age of the sitting president, felt better financially under Trump and might be willing to look at another option. I would keep a big eye on those male voters.

I would also keep a big eye on Spanish-speaking or bilingual Latinos. And this is a population constituency that Trump saw gains with when he ran not just in '16 but 2020 even though he lost the state narrowly, he was able to grow the Latino turnout and so watch that the Latino vote is shifting.

Absolutely. I want to ask one more follow-up question about abortion, which you mentioned being an important issue obviously here and everywhere. But there will also likely be at least potentially a voter initiative on the ballot to sort of enshrine abortion rights in the state Constitution. Does that change this situation when when voters are directly voting on abortion on the same ballot as they're voting for the president?

SANCHEZ: I don't think so. I think that at least in the minds of the people that I've talked to and we have written extensively about the ballot initiative. People's minds are pretty made up on this issue. It reminds me a lot of the issue of medical marijuana and where the debate was on that when it passed. It feels to me on the abortion issue very much the same. It feels like people have moved on.

So they've already made up their minds about that. And Yvonne, I want to talk about voting rights. This is obviously your beat and will be a contentious, a big issue this time around in our state as well. What are you watching for? Like when I bring that up? What's the first thing that comes to mind for you?

SANCHEZ: Arizona not meeting the mandated deadlines to certify their election results.

This is a story you recently broke and, and it basically comes down to like the election calendar being crunched because of some recent laws that have been passed and laws that were already on the books in terms of like not having enough time to recount elections between the primary and the general, and then the general and when it needed to be certified federally. This could be a huge problem, it sounds like. What does it look like in terms of lawmakers addressing this?

SANCHEZ: That's a very good question and it's one we're going to continue to try to answer. This was an issue that election officials desperately from around the state, right? This is not just a Maricopa issue, this is not a blue county issue, this is a red county issue as well. And I talked to a lot of people from these ruby red areas, they wanted this fixed. They were hoping that we could have a special session before the end of the year. That obviously did not happen.

And they are now in the position where they are hoping and praying that this will be resolved perhaps during a special session during the regular session in January with a very isolated look or fix at addressing these issues.

The big fear is that Republican lawmakers may not want to like straight-shot fix this that, they might try to attach some other priorities of theirs to address elections issues, things that in some instances have already been rejected by either the governor or their peers down at the state Capitol. And so there's deep concern that this process could be mucked up even more or delayed.

And from the perspective of the elections, directors and officials and administrators from around the state, they just want to be on the record saying we have told everyone that this is a problem, it is informed consent at this point. If this is not fixed, this is what it is. You guys have known that this has been a problem, and you have refused to fix it.

Let me ask you a question about staffing about elections officials, people working in those offices, the people who staff elections, it's a lot of people, but we've lost record numbers of them. And you've reported multiple times since the last two election cycles. Probably because of all of the kind of vitriol around this. Are we staffed up enough, like are, are counties at that very local level ready for this?

SANCHEZ: There's some counties that would say, yes, we are like, we've been pretty stable. We've been able to avoid some of the other turmoil that we've seen in places like Cochise to some extent up here in Maricopa County. Obviously Pinal and other areas of the state.

Some of these offices have been absolutely gutted, and even though they may have made hires to replace some of the people who have left recently, you're losing all of that institutional knowledge, and there remains deep concerns, not just within those offices, about their ability to have the manpower and the knowledge to carry out this next election cycle, but the attacks or the harassment and the continued environment that continues to create this turnover and this loss of institutional knowledge.

And that's what we're talking about, right? Like I just got off the phone with, with someone who just left a very rural position in an elections department. And she spent the last 6, 7, 8 months learning everything she could about how to run a local election. She's out, she's gone. There's hardly anybody else left. So who is there?

And they're having a hard time recruiting. That's the other issue, who would want to come work for some of these jurisdictions that have been in the public eye since 2020 in a way that is not necessarily positive.

So you take that environment and then you put it in light of the sort of war room mentality that you, that you described at the beginning of this conversation. And you've kind of got a recipe for disaster in some of these places that seems really concerning. Let me ask you about sort of the political ramifications of this, because you talked about independent voters and you talked about how they just kind of want to return to normalcy, right? Probably also and maybe especially when it comes to elections and sort of being able to trust them and knowing the results. And you know, the things that used to be a given. The challenges that we saw from Kari Lake, from others in the state since the last election cycle, last two, weren't successful. Like nobody overturned results. Do you think that'll play out again or do you think it's going to be much more complicated this time around?

SANCHEZ: I think it's going to play out again. This is what one person told me. And I think that they told it to me very well. And of course, it wasn't on the record, but it was useful. And the person said to me, Yvonne, it isn't always about winning. It's about demonstrating to your donors that you tried. And some of this is not about winning. It's about elevating issues. It's about sowing chaos. It's about sowing discontent. And in some instances about raising valid issues or questions about the way procedures are carried out.

And I do think that unlike in other states around the country that saw people who are skeptical of elections, you know, lose their races, Arizona candidates have had great success in messaging to their supporters. And beyond that, there are procedures or issues that merit closer look, and that it is not necessarily a bad thing to elevate these issues in the way that they have.

It's really interesting. OK, so final question for you, Yvonne, you have been a journalist in Arizona for a long time. You've covered politics here for a long time. You've covered some of the most contentious times in the state. How do you think politics have changed in Arizona in that time? And, and, and how maybe have they not changed all that much?

SANCHEZ: So, just reflecting on definitely like the last two years, last four years, maybe even expanding it out to like the last decade-ish, I think what strikes me the most is the human toll. And there used to be a time earlier in my career where these elected officials and public officials would duke it out right and then they could figure it out, they could work it out.

You show up to meetings these days, interviews, lunches, conversations with sources. There's real damage that has been done. People who have talked about it publicly have acknowledged it. There are many other people who are struggling who have not talked about it publicly. I think that toll is going to be reflected in the coming years with a wave of elected officials and public officials who are going to step aside and be done. Just like we're seeing in Congress. I think we're going to see the local version of this play out.

It didn't used to be like that. People could again, like disagree and show up and do the job and keep doing the job and you know, people could figure it out and laugh about it, you know, down the road, there's no laughing about it at this point. People are in their corners, there are white hats, there are black hats, and then there's the fight for the, and the fight for the hearts and the minds of the electorate. And I just feel like we are so divided now way more than we have ever been, at least in the 22 years that I've been here.

And I spend a lot of time just out talking to people, and it's a troubling theme, and I think it's where we're headed, and I think it's going to get a lot worse before it gets better.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.